The Life of Holiness, Romans 1:18-23
Posted by joespencer on April 9, 2013
My comments so far in the course of this reading project have aimed at isolating passages in which Jim’s overarching intentions with the letter to the Romans are embodied. In a certain way, this is to cut against the grain of Jim’s text: although he does, I think, have certain overarching intentions, his approach to the text is purposefully in excess of any overarching intention—too comprehensive to be limited to a theme, too willing to go wherever Paul wanders to dwell for long on central themes, too methodologically focused to worry about outlining an argument. Perhaps I’ve been willing—and will continue to be willing—to work against some of Jim’s purposes because I was converted long, long ago to the approach he’s modeling in the book; hoping to learn more from Jim, I consequently find myself focusing on the subtly emergent theme that gives the whole book its title. Whatever my motivations, I’ll continue in that mold in my discussion here of Jim’s analysis of Romans 1:18-23. How do these pages contribute to Jim’s investigation of the life of holiness?
As it turns out, there’s a sense in which it’s especially difficult in this part of Jim’s text (as it will be, I’m guessing in advance, in what we’ll read next week) to follow the thread of his larger and generally implicit study of the life of holiness. Why? Because beginning with verse 18 of Romans 1, Paul begins to focus on the life of unholiness. Most scholarly readers of Romans point out that 1:18–3:20 contain Paul’s assessment of sinfulness and unredemption, a theme that is suddenly (and suggestively) left behind with the nyn de, the “but now” of 3:21, which introduces an explicit echo of 1:17 and it’s talk of God’s righteousness being manifested. (Compare the two passages: 1:17 – “the righteousness of God [is] revealed”; 3:21 – “the righteousness of God … is manifested.”) The intervening discussion in 1:18–3:20, to which Jim gives attention mostly through his study of 1:18-32 (he’ll give us only a summary of chapters 2-4 before he turns decidedly to Romans 5-8), provides an analysis not of how God’s righteousness is revealed or manifested, but of how God’s wrath makes its appearance.
As Jim notes (p. 139), the traditional reading takes Romans 1:18-32 to be an assessment of Gentile unholiness and Romans 2:1-29 to be an assessment of Jewish unholiness. Since Jim gives his detailed attention only to the first of these two assessments, we’ll have a chance here only to look at one sort of unholiness. There’s a certain way that this is quite appropriate. Although, because of certain tendencies among Latter-day Saints to a kind of exclusivism, there are ways in which what Paul outlines as specifically Jewish unholiness are applicable to us readers of Jim’s book, it’s probably more likely that we’re prone to what Paul outlines as specifically Gentile unholiness. And it’s this sort of unholiness that, at any rate, Paul seems to see as more directly opposed (through the parallel Jim notes between 1:17 and 1:18; see p. 141) to the sort of righteousness and holiness that the gospel would reveal.
To get to work, then: What might we learn about unholiness here?
First come Jim’s very helpful discussions of “truth” and “knowledge,” as Paul would have understood these terms. Where “for us, reality (what is) is objective rather than personal, and it is ultimately static, ‘a datum at rest in itself,'” Jim explains, “for the ancients, the most real thing is that which makes all other things possible” (p. 143). This difference is crucial. Today we think of truth as whatever isn’t subjective, as whatever is actually independent of us. This is in part because we, as the heirs of Rene Descartes, begin from a skeptical position about the world: How do I know that what’s outside me is real, is really there? Paul, however, as an ancient, began from a completely different position. Not doubting what was “outside” of herself, the ancient person took to be most real what ultimately lay behind all things. When Paul speaks of the truth, which is suppressed by unrighteousness, he had in mind God, as what gave all things to be what and how they are.
It follows, as Jim makes clear, that, for an ancient, the truth—what is most real—is at least implicitly known by everyone who inhabits the world. Perhaps one couldn’t say much about the truth just by inhabiting the world, but one certainly, as it were, dealt with the truth. And that’s all that was necessary, because the ancients understood knowledge differently than us as well: “Thus, where we would think a person knows something if he can tell us various facts about it, they would have thought he knew it if he were familiar with it, if he had experience of it, whether it was a fact, an idea, a thing, or a person” (p. 145). For the ancient, then, living itself was enough to give one a kind of knowledge of truth—not just of truth in general, but of the truth, the ultimate reality that lies behind everything we experience.
It’s in light of these clarifications that one can make sense of Paul’s claim in these verses that everyone just knows the truth about the world, that it can be, as it were, read right off of things. As Jim explains: “Given this understanding of truth and our relation to it, Paul can appeal to the creation of the world as the standard of truth: God created a harmonious world; people live in that world and are necessarily in harmony with it to some degree, and every person can become more harmonious and act rightly by developing the harmony in which they already live” (p. 150). That’s the picture Paul’s working with. And that’s the picture that helps us to see what unholiness, unrighteousness, must be. It’s not simply a matter, as we might guess, of doing bad things; it’s a matter of working against what we ourselves know, of rebelling against the truth we’ve become acquainted with simply by living.
How does one rebel in this fashion? Paul’s answer, as Jim makes clear, is this: “Not to be holy as the Lord God is holy is to be an idolater” (p. 159). Paul’s own words are that they, the unrighteous or unholy, “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). Jim makes this point very briefly (his discussion of verse 23 takes up less than a page!), and that surprised me—perhaps particularly because it was Jim who first directed me to some of the richest discussions of idolatry on offer in contemporary thought (those, to name names, of Jean-Luc Marion). Why not say more about this business of idolatry? Certainly Jim thinks it’s still a real problem for the Saints, the most common manifestation of unholiness. So why not get into the details?
Here, though, I recognize that I’m asking Jim to focus on what interests me the most. I’m myself particularly struck by this talk of idolatry, and I’ve found myself convinced in my own work on Romans 1 that the key to what Paul’s doing is to be found in what he has to say about idolatry. I don’t have the space in a post like this to spell out all the details of my own reading, but I’ll summarize it, I suppose. Paul’s Greek seems to me to lay emphasis on the way that in idolatry we attempt to economize God, stripping the creation of the glory lent it by its Creator by transforming it into so many commodities that can be exchanged on the market. The ultimate motivation for idolatry lies in the desire to suppress what lies behind the world (namely, God) in order to establish a closed circuit, a space within which wealth can circulate without (divine) hindrance. In idolatry, human beings displace God (as verse 18 has it, for the unrighteous, God ceases to be nearby and a source of righteousness and becomes instead distant, “from heaven,” and a source of “wrath”), hoping to maintain a space, however temporary, within which we can enjoy the earth’s riches without having to recognize their status as gift.
The life of unholiness, as I read Romans 1, is thus the life of attempting to enjoy the wealth of the creation while denying—in act, if generally not in word—that its source is in God. Unholiness is first and foremost an economic affair, an insistence on ownership of rather than stewardship over the creation, a refusal to let God meddle in “merely” temporal business. Unholiness is assumed by building a wall that would keep God at an infinite distance as long as possible, even if His return is ultimately inevitable. It’s from this that the earth must be delivered (as Paul will say in Romans 8), under this that the earth groans (as Paul will also say in Romans 8). And it’s apparently only as the life of holiness, the life of righteousness, dawns that the earth can find herself delivered of the burden of idolatrous humanity. Or so it seems to me.
The unrighteous give God to manifest Himself only as a distant and wrathful deity. That’s apparently how they want to see Him. But what shape does God’s actual wrath take? Jim explains this point very nicely: “Notice that we do not see the Father punishing the sinners described [here], at least not in our ordinary sense of the word punish. Rather, as we will see, Paul says that the Father gives them up to their sins (see Romans 1:24). Their sin is their punishment” (p. 141). What’s the punishment for idolatry? The inherent instability of the market, the empty experience of the commodity, the self-obsession of ownership, the constant demands of the cult of economics, the complete lack of fellowship and community—all this is the “punishment” God metes out to those who choose it over the life of holiness. In the end, we unfortunately seem to get what we want.
Of course, this is a point that, as Jim says, will be spelled out in more detail in next week’s reading. For the moment, we’re given just to see the basics of life if we reject its coupling with God’s holiness. And it should be reason enough to start repenting.
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